Travel is by far one of the best ways to get in touch with not only yourself, but the world at large. As we all know, however, funding that travel can be incredibly challenging, especially if you have any significant amount of debt to contend with. Luckily, there are ways to get around figuring out how to travel the world with no money, like travel grants, volunteering with international aid organizations, or teaching English as a second language abroad.
I ended up going with the latter, and it was one of the best travel experiences I’m ever likely to have. Not only was I able to experience vibrant culture in my year teaching, but I was able to pay off a decent portion of my student loan debt while also saving money for my return stateside. This wasn’t a particularly easy thing to do, but it is very possible if you remember a few key things.
Understanding Your Finances Before You Go
By the time I graduated from my university, I had accumulated nearly $40,000 in student loan debt. My story isn’t an uncommon one by any means, but I was still panicked. I had no idea how to even begin to tackle this debt with an English writing undergraduate degree, and began to do serious research as to how I might be able to keep my head above water. After a little bit of research, I decided that robbing a bank was not in my best interest, so I crossed that off of my list and did the next best thing: tried my hand at teaching abroad in South Korea.
While it was possible to restructure my student loans to reflect my earning potential through an income-driven plan, working overseas made the paperwork that much more difficult. As I was already stressed, I decided that adopting an aggressive repayment strategy was my best course of action. I was only able to do this because the school I was teaching at paid me an amazing wage while also housing me rent-free for the entirety of my contract with them.
I was incredibly lucky to stumble into such a fortunate financial set up, but I still had to budget vigorously if I had any intent to explore South Korea in any meaningful way. After all, I decided to teach abroad not just for the experience of teaching or the financial gains, but also because I had a deep and unabiding need to explore the world and soak up as much culture as I could.
You Might Have Unexpected Costs
I had figured that once I was in South Korea it would be relatively easy to explore the surrounding countries. Japan was only a couple of hours away by plane, after all. I was shocked to find out that even with such close proximity, flying into Tokyo and staying for even a week would cost me over $1000 dollars. I had to make the tough decision to forgo Japan entirely, because I knew that if I wanted to come back home with any real money, I would have to be judicious in how I spent while I was overseas.
About five months into my contract with my school, I discovered an interesting side-effect of my constant fretting about saving money and paying off my student debt. While riding on Seoul’s wonderful Metropolitan subway, I suffered a stress induced anxiety attack. I had no clue what was happening, because I had never had one previously. I had also made the poor decision of not acquiring travel insurance before heading out of my home country, so I ended up paying out of pocket when seeing the doctor that told me what had happened.
Luckily, my frugal extremes allowed me to easily pay for the doctor visit. The doctor had told me that I had extremely high cortisol levels produced by stress and that I needed to find a way to relax and mitigate how much stress I was exposing myself to. It was at this point that I had to back off of my aggressive repayment of my loans, going back to paying the minimum. This allowed me to spend a little bit more of my hard earned money on myself while at the same time putting away just a bit more each month for when I got back home.
Develop and Implement Your Savings Plan
My original savings plan was a source of a lot of stress in my time there, and was a pretty standard way to save money in general. I used public transportation as often as I could, avoided eating out at the more expensive restaurants in my town, and tried to make my main source of entertainment listening to my favorite music and podcasts while I walked around and explored as much of Seoul as I could. These are common tips for having a health money mindset, but I found that depriving myself of good food and entertainment was one of the driving factors that sent me to the doctor.
I decided that I needed to be more fluid with how I was budgeting myself, and made the conscious decision to have a kind of “cheat day” each week in order to treat myself while still saving a significant amount of my paycheck. I decided to make saving money less of a chore and more of a challenge to myself, making it into a sort of game. I would go on spending fasts, trying my absolute best to be as tight-fisted as I could for a day, then compare how much I was able to save versus a regular day. I made it a point to teach myself how to cook Korean cuisine which helped me to not only save money by cooking from home, but to expand my skill set overall. When planning trips out of the country, I would spend hours looking at different airlines trying to find the cheapest international flights, sometimes even doing this just for kicks.
Eventually, the saving came more naturally to me, and I actually had some fun doing it. Instead of going out to bars with other expats, I would go to the library and hang out in the English section to meet locals who I could talk to. In fact, if I had gone overseas with all the money in the world, I doubt that I would have had nearly as exciting and eye-opening an experience as I ended up making for myself when budgeting like crazy.
When all was said and done, I ended up coming back to the U.S. with nearly $5,000 dollars in my bank account, and this was after paying off a significant amount of my debt. Just remember, if you have the drive to do so, you can save money while teaching abroad and have the experience of a lifetime
About the Author:
Ross Cowan is a freelance writer based out of Boise, Idaho. He enjoys traveling the world and going on adventures with his partner and his dog. You can follow Ross on Twitter @RossCowanWrites.